Loneliness & Happiness: The Facebook Effect

Today, I stumbled upon an article titled Is Facebook Making Us Lonely in The Atlantic.

I’m not going to sugar coat it: it’s a very long article.

But it’s also a very good one. Scratch that. It’s an excellent one.

It hits hard and deep on the message we are trying to spread at Symbyoz. It has to be one of the most interesting and insightful article about the “Facebook effect” in our day to day lives I’ve read.

And yes, the comments are almost as good as the article.

If you have time, dig in, it’s totally worth it.

If you don’t, let me summarize the main points for you, and make it easier to get to the bottom line.

We are more connected, yet lonelier than ever …

Facebook to Twitter have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic) and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill.

It’s indeed a staggering fact. Loneliness and being alone are not the same thing, but both are on the rise. We are more connected than ever before, yet very few are really satisfied with the level of closeness they have with their friends. Our recent survey shows that most Americans have a mediocre perception of how well they keep in touch despite the fact that we are so well connected.

A 2010 AARP survey found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier. According to a major study by a leading scholar of the subject, roughly 20 percent of Americans—about 60 million people—are unhappy with their lives because of loneliness.

Our connections are growing broader but shallower

That one little phrase, Your real friends—so quaint, so charmingly mothering—perfectly encapsulates the anxieties that social media have produced: the fears that Facebook is interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier; and that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer.

Yep, you know something is not quite right when websites such as Google+ are starting to use phrases such as “Your real friends” as in “Where are your real friends all gone???”

Facebook is NOT to blame for our loneliness. Let’s recognize the real problem: our individualistic culture.

FACEBOOK ARRIVED IN THE MIDDLE of a dramatic increase in the quantity and intensity of human loneliness, a rise that initially made the site’s promise of greater connection seem deeply attractive.

The people who experience loneliness on Facebook are probably lonely away from Facebook, too. In fact, research also suggest that most Facebook users get more from it than they put in.

LONELINESS IS CERTAINLY not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves.

WELL BEFORE FACEBOOK, digital technology was enabling our tendency for isolation, to an unprecedented degree.

The problem it seems sits more with the way we are using Facebook, and technology in general.

“Facebook can be terrific, if we use it properly,” Cacioppo continues. “It’s like a car. You can drive it to pick up your friends. Or you can drive alone.” But hasn’t the car increased loneliness? If cars created the suburbs, surely they also created isolation. “That’s because of how we use cars,” Cacioppo replies. “How we use these technologies can lead to more integration, rather than more isolation.”

Valuing happiness is not necessarily linked to greater happiness.

What does Facebook communicate, if not the impression of social bounty? Everybody else looks so happy on Facebook, with so many friends, that our own social networks feel emptier than ever in comparison. Doesn’t that make people feel lonely? “If people are reading about lives that are much better than theirs, two things can happen,” Burke tells me. “They can feel worse about themselves, or they can feel motivated.”

Facebook, of course, puts the pursuit of happiness front and center in our digital life. But under certain conditions, the more you try to be happy, the less happy you are.

Redefining our very concepts of identity and personal fulfillment (aka encouragin narcisism) is much more worrisome to me than the privacy concerns that have people up in arms about Facebook.

Personalized connections and meaningful interactions matters

Non-personalized use of Facebook—scanning your friends’ status updates and updating the world on your own activities via your wall, or what Burke calls “passive consumption” and “broadcasting”—correlates to feelings of disconnectedness.

 

Aha! … obvious preach to the Symbyoz choir. Posting a status update on a wall doesn’t make you a good friend any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

It’s a lonely business, wandering the labyrinths of our friends’ and pseudo-friends’ projected identities, trying to figure out what part of ourselves we ought to project, who will listen, and what they will hear. According to Burke, passive consumption of Facebook also correlates to a marginal increase in depression.

And that sums it all well. I’m worried that Facebook, and social media in general, is becoming a mere “lonely” “business”, with fewer real people having meaningful connections or even paying attention, and more lurkers or marketers looking forward to broadcast their messages and promote their products.

I have nothing against marketing online on social media. I’m doing it myself. There’s nothing wrong with promoting an idea or a cool product. It’s actually awesome.

It would just be a shame that the tremendous value of the social connections created on Facebook and other places gets wasted for the very people who have been told that everything can happen thanks to the power of a solid social network.